Lack of hydrogen and helium led to fewer balloon trips for meteorological research

The National Weather Service has reduced the launch of weather balloons at some of its sites due to a shortage of hydrogen and helium used to raise them, potentially affecting weather and climate forecasts and research.

The cuts, combined with the closure of the Cape Cod launch site last year, which is not yet open, could have a significant impact on forecasts in the New York-New England area, some scientists said.

The agency said it would use data from balloons released at nearby sites and other sources, including ground-based sensors, satellites and commercial aircraft. Although the balloons have certain advantages, including the ability to make observations up to a height of about 20 miles, “This temporary adjustment will not affect weather forecasts and warnings,” the agency said, announcing the cuts last week.

But Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist in Austin, Texas, and a professor at the University of Texas there, said any reduction in observations was worrying. “It is very important in our atmospheric modeling to be able to have this information,” he said.

“We can’t go back and get that data,” said Sandra Uther, a professor at North Carolina State University and an expert in remote sensing of meteorological data. “We will have big gaps.”

Dr Uther said the cuts showed that the meteorological service did not give high enough priority to meteorological balloons, which have been a major part of the agency’s observations for nearly a century.

Gas shortages are a solvable problem, she said: “If you think something is important, then you solve the problem.

Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, said: “We take this situation seriously and are looking for ways to resolve it.

“The upper air surveillance program remains a key factor in our analysis, the assimilation of model data and the situational awareness of our forecasters,” she said.

Weather balloons, which are about 5 feet in diameter when launched, carry a small, expensive toolkit called a radiosonde that transmits temperature, pressure and relative humidity data when the balloon rises in the upper atmosphere. Eventually, the balloon bursts and the radiosonde is parachuted to the ground, where it can be recovered and reused.

Balloons are used all over the world and are usually released at certain times twice a day, with an interval of 12 hours. The data are presented in computer models that provide short-term and long-term weather forecasts, and also become part of large long-term databases used in weather and climate research.

The Meteorological Service announced on March 29 that, with immediate effect, flights from nine of its 101 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean will be reduced “due to a disruption in the global helium supply chain and a temporary problem with the hydrogen supplier contract.” The agency said it expects additional sites to be affected.

The helium market was hit this year by problems at a major domestic source in Amarillo, Texas, and a fire in January at a large new plant in Russia.

All affected areas are in the east, from Tallahassee, Florida, in the north to Buffalo and Albany in New York. Five use helium and four use hydrogen. The flights will be reduced to one a day and will be completely eliminated on good weather days to save gas for launches during dangerous weather, the service said.

On Monday, Ms. Buchanan said helium had been delivered to one location in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the full launch schedule had been resumed. But some of the other affected sites have had or will soon be completely depleted, she said. The problem with the hydrogen supplier was resolved, but it was unclear when gas supplies would resume.

By measuring conditions through the air column, radiosondes provide information that is crucial for understanding and predicting the evolution of storm systems. Even if the weather is calm, collecting this data can be important, Mr Kimmel said.

“Who can say that this calm weather pattern will not affect their forecast for other places?” He said.

Dr Uther said balloon data helped scientists understand the structure of the atmosphere and “fueled our understanding of what will happen to climate change.”

One of the affected areas with helium is in Upton, New York, on Long Island. This is the closest launch site to New York, about 50 miles to the west.

The Meteorological Service was forced to close its station in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, in March 2021 due to erosion. The agency is working to select a site for a new station as soon as possible, Ms Buchanan said.

Without Upton and Chatham, a large stretch of the East Coast, from Wallops Island, Virginia, to Portland, Maine, is not covered by balloon launches.

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, said that while the meteorological service was facing a “difficult situation”, he did not think their statement that it would have any impact on the forecasts was credible.

“NWS claims that the loss of several radiosonde stations in a high-populated area did not affect the forecast and was not accompanied by any supporting evidence,” he said.

The Meteorological Service has faced another disruption in its ability to collect data in recent years. Worldwide, commercial aircraft routinely and automatically provide weather data to meteorological services and similar agencies in other countries. In the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when air travel fell by about 75 percent, those observations fell by about the same amount.

A study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that data loss affects the quality of one of its weather forecasting models.

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